The Velvet Revolution, the 1989 revolt that ended the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, was one of the great events of the postwar era. The Czech and Slovak generation that fomented it lived through an eventful half-century that took on the dimensions of high drama.
The first act of the drama could be said to have begun with the 1948 installation of a Stalinist regime in Prague. It would end in the mid-1960s, during the brief but rich moment of cultural and democratic renewal known as the Prague Spring. The second act might begin in 1968, with Soviet tanks putting a violent end to the Prague Spring, and show the dreary era of “Normalization,” when a Soviet puppet regime sought to undo the progress of the previous decade.
A happy final act could be traced from 1976 to 1989. The year 1976 saw the publication of Charter 77, an open letter that denounced the Communist regime’s human-rights abuses. (Many of the letter’s signatories were exiled, imprisoned, or lost their jobs.) Things looked bleak but, in a stunning reversal, the hopes of a people scarred by Stalinism and Normalization eventually prevailed in November 1989, when a series of peaceful protests led to the ouster of the Communist regime. To paraphrase one of the chief revolutionaries, the writer-turned-president Václav Havel: Truth and love triumphed over lies and hatred.
The Velvet Revolution was the product of art and culture, not only politics. Legend has it that its name was derived from The Velvet Underground & Nico, the 1967 New York rock album secretly distributed behind the Iron Curtain. The arrest of The Plastic People of the Universe, a homegrown rock group, was one of the inciting incidents for Charter 77. Václav Havel made his name as a playwright and essayist before entering electoral politics. Renowned philosopher Jan Patočka was the designated spokesman for the Charter 77 signatories, and something like their older, sage-like conscience.
It is as a testimony to this history that Tomáš Halík’s newly translated autobiography, From the Underground Church to Freedom, is of interest to American readers. A Czech priest and writer, and winner of the 2014 Templeton Prize, Halík served as a spokesperson for the church during the Velvet Revolution. Halík converted to the Catholic faith and discerned a vocation to the priesthood during the Prague Spring. In 1989, he would emerge as one of the intellectual leaders of post-Communist Czechoslovakia and (after partition) the Czech Republic.
Most of the book reads like a cross between a conversion story and a thriller: a tale of saints and books, state surveillance and spiritual reflections, underground journals and clandestine liturgies, secret words exchanged between dissidents in bus stops or whispered on Old World bridges at night. The thrill is not undone by the plodding last third of the book, a long account of Halík’s post-1989 successes, awards, trips, and academic appointments, including a fascinating account of a trip to Antarctica.
Given his background, Halík’s conversion was unexpected. Many Czechs have long had an ambivalent relationship with the Catholic Church, in part due to a nationalistic desire to shuck off all ties to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Moreover, the story of Jan Hus, the Czech reformer burned at the stake by Catholic authorities in 1415, has never left national memory. (The story impressed the precocious young Halík.) Though they baptized him as an infant, Halík’s parents were not churchgoers. But they did nurture his intellectual growth. Halík’s father was a respected literary translator with tacit anti-regime inclinations, who worked as a librarian (“the library was a repository for politically unreliable people,” he writes). Later in life, Halík would thank his father “for helping me find faith, in spite of being an ‘atheist,’ and for giving me the best religious upbringing by having been a good father.”